Wooden versus Plastic Recorders
Like many of us, I acquired my first recorder in grade school. It was an ivory colored Yamaha soprano recorder. (I still have it to this day, and it is pictured above.) Unlike many student instruments, the Yamaha is very good. It speaks well in all registers and has a good tone. I recommend the Yamaha 302B series instruments to any beginning student. Unfortunately, there are downsides to the high quality and low price of the plastic instruments, namely that they cause many players to shy away from wooden instruments. Despite their high quality, plastic instruments are simply not of the same nature as wooden ones. The plastic instruments cannot match the wooden ones in timbre or playability. The following paragraphs describe the benefits of wooden recorders, as well as allay some common fears so that you can make the jump to a wooden instrument.
Wooden instruments have many advantages over plastic ones. The first of these is their tone. Wooden instruments do not have the somewhat strident and piercing tone of plastic recorders. Moreover the wooden instruments are made with a variety of wonderful timbres ranging from sweet flute like tones, to reed like ones. A second advantage is that the windways of wooden instruments absorb excess moisture. In contrast, drops of water form in the windways of plastic instruments, causing disruptions in sound known as clogging. Wooden instruments can have undercut tone-holes. On a plastic instrument, the finger-holes are shaped like a cylinder that is perpendicular to the body of the instrument. On wooden instruments the finger-holes are not necessarily round and may be cut at an shallow angle to the body. Undercut tone-holes allow comfortable placement of the fingers, and also allow the notes to speak well. Wooden instruments are available in a variety of pitches and tunings. Lastly, and most importantly, most wooden instruments are more carefully voiced and constructed than plastic instruments. This has a profound impact on the playability of the instrument.
One of the first topics that comes up when discussing a wooden instrument is maintenance. Wooden instruments are porous and can absorb moisture. Over time, the moisture can deform the wood and cause it to crack. The thought of an instrument cracking is enough to scare novices away. Fortunately proper care and maintenance can minimize the likelihood of cracking. This care is very simple. The first aspect is to avoid exposing the recorder to extremes of temperatures. This includes such things as leaving the recorder in the sun, or in the car. It is also important to warm up the head joint before playing it, so that the wood does not suddenly expand from the hot air that you blow in it. The second aspect of the care is to remove the moisture from the instrument after playing it. This is accomplished by running a clean, lint-free cloth through the instrument. Once a year or so, wooden recorders that have not been sealed with paraffin should have their bores swabbed with oil, to help prevent the moisture from penetrating into the wood. That is basically it, really simple and easy. If you still have fears about cracking or oiling, I would recommend that you purchase a recorder made from a softer wood, such as pearwood or maple, that has been impregnated with paraffin. It will not need oiling, and softer woods are not as prone to cracking.
When I mention the price of a wooden recorder, most people are somewhat surprised, as plastic instruments are so inexpensive. The good news is that wooden recorders are less expensive than most other instruments, such as violins, and trumpets. They have few keys or metal parts that require a great deal of labor to install. A high quality factory-made wooden soprano costs only several hundred dollars. This may seem like a lot of money. However, it costs less than a dollar per day if it were paid over the course of a year. It is less than the price of going to a movie each week. If you have more money to spare, hand-made recorders are still very affordable. A soprano can be purchased for less than 1,500 dollars.
Several years ago, before rehearsal, I stopped by Peabody to get some research materials in the library. In my haste I left my instruments at home. Fortunately, Ted's Music, a Baltimore tradition, is located across the street. They had a used wooden recorder for sale and I picked it up for 10 bucks. It was a Hohner Solo-luxus. It is nothing to write home about. When it was new in the early 1970s it cost less than 20 dollars, so it was an inexpensive instrument. This being said it is useful to illustrate the differences between a wooden and a plastic recorder. Despite needing to be re-voiced after many years of use, the wooden recorder still plays acceptably. It is not as reedy as the plastic Yamaha. More significantly it does not have the ring to its tone, that characterizes plastic instruments.
Click here to download a windows audio file of l'homme arme being played on a wooden recorder.
Click here to download a windows audio file of l'homme arme being played on a Yamaha 302 series plastic recorder.